The last year has been a major revelation for me with regards to the work of Buster Keaton. A good friend of mine encouraged me to watch Keaton’s The General about a year ago. I enjoyed it so much that within another month, I’d seen Sherlock Jr./Our Hospitality. And then a month or so after that, I did College, followed by Battling Butler. And then I took on Steamboat Bill Jr. After a small lull, I tackled Seven Chances, and I knew at that time that the obsession had become full-blown. And now I’ve seen anything and everything I can get my hands on.
1. The Stunts
Any appreciation of Keaton begins with the fact that he performed his own stunts. And these aren’t your run of the mill stunts. The classic example is his death-defying leap from moving train car to train car in The General. Another brilliant example is in Steamboat Bill Jr. where the entire side of a house falls on top of him, only for him to emerge unscathed through an open window in the house. For the scene, he had to stand on a spot marked by a nail in the ground. Had he been a few inches further to the left or the right, the weight of the house would’ve squashed him like a bug, killed him on the spot. Film after film after film, be it full length feature or simply a short film, each features an insane stunt that he performed. And why, you may ask, did he constantly risk life and limb? To make people laugh. That’s amazing in a way I can’t even begin to describe. The guy almost killed himself countless times and the only good reason for it was so he could put a grin on some faces.
2. The set-ups
The common misperception with Keaton- with all of the silent comedians, for that matter (Arbuckle, Harold Zoid…er… Lloyd, Chaplin)- is that their humor is driven purely by slapstick. A pie in the face and a well-placed banana seem to be the connotation. It’s simply not true. I urge you to watch any of the Keaton films from the silent era, particularly pre-MGM (1917-1928). Watch those and tell me that the physical humor wasn’t accompanied by some sort of deeper set-up.
The worlds that Keaton created in his films were chaotic. They were absurd. They were borderline surreal. They were full of boats that twisted and contorted in impossible ways; houses that could be thrown into chaos at the flip of a switch; ridiculous misunderstandings that prevented him from getting the girl; new technology at every turn that would throw Keaton’s life into total disarray; impossible numbers of cops or angry brides, all amassed with one purpose- to catch Keaton. And there in the middle of it all, possessing a face void of emotion but an athlete’s body splayed out in all directions, was Buster. No matter what sort of chicanery enveloped him, there he was- porkpie hat, stone face, going against the stream. And sometimes things worked out for him. Sometimes it didn’t. It didn’t matter, though, because no matter how many bumps and bruises he took, he kept on ticking.
4. The influence
Have you ever seen the classic “Steamboat Mickey” cartoon? That came from Steamboat Bill Jr. Just about every single stunt you’ve seen in a Looney Tunes cartoon appeared in a Keaton film at one point or another. Even Chaplin’s famous bit- the dancing forks with potato feet- originated in a Keaton/Arbuckle short several years beforehand. Mind you, I’m not accusing Chaplin of thievery, nor do I intend to compare the two. They’re both geniuses in their own way. Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers all benefitted by rehashing Keaton sketches decades after Buster had originally used them. And, as if to prove how committed he was to laughter and how unselfish he was, Keaton gave his blessing in this whole affair. He wanted people to use his bits. He wanted to help. He was an uncredited writer for those people. And let’s not forget Mel Brooks. Two Brooks films owe a good deal to Keaton- History of the World (whose plot is lifted right from Keaton’s own Three Ages) and Silent Movie. Between Keaton’s own work, the Marx Brothers, Looney Tunes, Disney, and Mel Brooks, that accounts for 60 years of comedy that divined inspiration from Buster Keaton. In short, more than half a century of comedy wouldn’t have been very funny if not for Keaton.
I imagine I’ll wind up writing more about this later. There are so many layers to Keaton and I’ve become such a fan that I’m obligated to do it justice. But for now?